Cricket fans love cold comparisons. We love comparing statistics across eras, numbers, and match-winning innings – and having a ‘best’ at all points of time, every year. We are inarguably in the age of batsmen. The averages are increasing by the year and records are being broken by batsmen under the age of 30. It’s hard to tell if it’s the pitches or the overall quality of bowlers these days. India, as we know, is famous for producing world-class batsmen. As is Australia. Their current captains – Virat Kohli and Steve Smith – have gone from the ‘best of the young generation’ to the ‘best in the world’ – bar none. There was a time when AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, and Michael Clarke dominated these discussions, but over the last few years, it’s been between Smith, Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root.
In 2017, it’s down to two of them. And let’s take a closer look – across all formats and situations – to see if it can just be one best batsman:
Kohli is 29 and Smith is 28. Both had lukewarm starts to their batting career before transforming into run machines. In the context of pure numbers, like most Indians, Kohli is way ahead. He has played more ODI cricket and was established as a first-class batsman much before Smith was – Smith started as a leg-spinner. Kohli has more than 16000 international runs across three formats. Smith has around 9000 runs and he isn’t much of a T20 player. Kohli is already being touted as the best ODI batsman to have ever played the game. Kohli has 52 international centuries, while Smith has 29. Kohli is known as a world-class limited overs chaser, probably the best ever. He fell only 40 short of the highest number of runs ever scored in a calendar year in 2017.
Here is where Smith has laid the claim to being the most effective batsman in world cricket today. He has a Bradman-ish average of 61 in Test cricket, having scored over 5500 runs in 58 matches. Nobody has that kind of record after scoring so many runs. His recent century against England in the Ashes in the first test at Brisbane will go down as one of the best ever made – his slowest and most battling innings yet. Smith has 21 test centuries, while Kohli has 20. Smith averages 70 at home, while Kohli averages 63 at home. Smith averages 60 in India, while Kohli averages 60 in Australia. But Kohli’s average overseas, 45, is less than Smith’s 57 away from home. Kohli averages only 13 in England in a disastrous tour of five tests, while Smith has had no such blink in form. He averages a respectful 43 in England and 67 in South Africa. The next season will be very important for Kohli in Test cricket if he has to prove himself to be a top Test batsman. He has had a phenomenal year and a half in this format, scoring 6 double centuries since July 2016. But most of them have come at home or against a weaker opposition. His average has leapfrogged to 53 overall, but Smith has been consistently prolific, if not a double centurion. Kohli has to tour South Africa, Australia, and England in the next year.
On its own, it’s easy to say that Kohli is the better captain right now. His team has won 9 consecutive Test series – mostly at home – while Smith has struggled to keep his side afloat away from home in the same period. Australia recently lost to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India. They might win the Ashes this year because it’s at home, but Smith hasn’t had the world-beating team that his predecessors have often had. But captaincy seems to have agreed well with both as batsmen. Kohli has all kinds of records as Indian captain already, while Smith is often the only standout batsmen in his team – especially against tougher opposition. He did very well against India in India last year, a series where Kohli found it tough to get going after a purple patch. Smith owned that series even though his team lost a close 2-1 in their toughest country. But Kohli has managed to mold his Indian team into an aggressive unit that isn’t expected to go down 8-0 against Australia and England next year. One suspects Root will be in the mix next year once he starts to convert his half-centuries into daddy hundreds more often.
Kohli has won ODI matches for his team single-handedly in all kinds of situations. He has played exceedingly well in IPL cricket too. But Kohli, in his two ODI World Cups, has yet to get going. In 2015, except for his century against Pakistan, he had a tough time in Australia. Smith, despite his less-than-prolific record overall, hit five consecutive fifties in that World Cup, helping his team become World Champions again. It was his only ODI World Cup so far and like a true Aussie, he stepped up on the most important stage in an ICC tournament. Kohli has been the best far and away in ICC World T20 tournaments – two Man of the Series awards and all kinds of chases. But he might have traded it all to have scored heavily against Australia in the 2015 World Cup semifinal. As a result, while both have 1 World Cup title to their names, it’s Smith who stepped up when it counted the most. The next World Cup is in England in 2019 – and we know who has a better record in those conditions.
At the end of 2017, while Kohli is leading India to South Africa and Smith leads his team to a hard-fought Ashes – it’s clear that it’s still neck and neck. One is better overall but the other is perhaps the best test batsman in years. Hard to call but perhaps a year more, and we could have the most definitive proof yet.